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Virginia Football Unit Previews: Running Backs

Who will rise to the occasion this year?

NCAA Football: Virginia at Duke Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

Over the past six seasons, the Virginia Cavaliers have had one standout running back with an overwhelming majority of the snaps. In each of the past two years, Jordan Ellis has been that man, leading the way and breaking the 1,000 mark last year.

With Ellis gone, the Hoos are likely to find multiple guys getting chances in the backfield. Bronco Mendenhall has mentioned that he’d like to have one “workhorse” back, although it’s not readily apparent who that player might be yet. And while someone may take the reins and gallop through the season, it seems more likely that Mendenhall and offensive coordinator Robert Anae end up going with the hot hand on a game-by-game basis.

QB Bryce Perkins will very likely lead the team in carries, but two or more guys could get extended play in the backfield.

2019 Outlook

The Virginia depth chart lists two RB positions, SB and BB. SB is the “speed” back and BB is the “big” back. It’s similar to a running back / fullback partnership. But, unlike a traditional FB, there will be times when a BB is on the field alone. There could also be times when both SB and BB are on the field, but lined up next to each other. Ellis was regularly listed at the SB, while the BB was mostly Jabari Peacock. Ellis led the team with 215 carries, while Peacock had 2.

Just to confuse things, Virginia also listed a halfback on the depth chart, which was Olamide Zaccheaus. That position will be discussed with WRs, because it’s more of a slot receiver than a true RB although he had more carries than anybody other than Ellis and Perkins.

The top candidate to replace Ellis is junior P.K. Kier. He’s the leading returning rusher, with all of 26 carries for 82 yards (3.1 ypc). At 6’0” 230, he doesn’t really fit the “speed” part of SB. He’s a big, bruising back. But he’s also got some moves. Just watch the first run on this highlight reel from his senior year of high school. He’s got quick feet for a big guy.

The main competition for Kier is true freshman Mike Hollins. Hollins was a three star recruit out of Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Seems like no big deal, but take a look at Hollins’s offer list: Alabama, Utah, Missouri, Houston. Of course, he also held offers from Arkansas State, Army, South Alabama and Tulane. That’s weird. Still, Nick Saban doesn’t offer three-star RBs unless there’s something special about them.

And there is something special about Hollins. Here are Hollins reported numbers in some athleticism drills, along with where that would’ve ranked among RBs at this year’s NFL combine.

Mike Hollins vs. NFL Combine

40 Yard Dash 20 Yard Shuttle Vertical
40 Yard Dash 20 Yard Shuttle Vertical
4.49 4.2 40
6th 4th 1st

Some of the RB didn’t participate in the combine. But those are some impressive numbers. They are similar to what Alabama RB Damien Harris put up at the Combine (at 5’10” 215; Hollins is 5’10” 214), and he rushed for over 3000 yards playing four years for Saban. If Hollins is that good, he’s going to be tough to keep off the field. Below is his highlight reel.

There are two other guys who could get snaps at SB, Lamont Atkins and Wayne Taulapapa. Atkins, like Kier, is a junior who hasn’t seen the field much in two years. Atkins fits the “speed” back to a T. Just watch his highlight reel below. He’s fast. He’s also listed as running a 3.94 shuttle. That’s insanely fast, and would be one of the top best times ever at the NFL combine. It’s probably hand-timed, but still…he’s quick.

Maybe you remember Taulapapa from several years ago. He was one of Mendenhall’s first recruits, but spent two years on a mission for the LDS church. He actually saw action in seven games last year (entirely on special teams). He’s a talented RB and as BYU has shown, the two years of growth (both physically and emotionally) can have a big impact on a player. Just a sophomore, Taulapapa is the same age as current fourth years. As a runner, Taulapapa might be the closest to Ellis. He’s a one-cut, downhill runner, he’s about the same size as Ellis. And he’s as tough as Ellis. Here’s his highlight reel. Watch him pinballing around, refusing the go down. Looks a lot like Ellis.

The Future

When all the expected contributors are coming back next year, there certainly isn’t any concern for the immediate future. In this case, with a pair of true freshmen in Hollins and speedster Seneca Milledge, the distant future it also bright.

From the moment Milledge set foot in Charlottesville, he was possibly the fastest guy on the team. He might fit best as a replacement for Zaccheaus (which we will, again, discuss with the WRs). But he could also be used as a SB in certain situations. He’s just 5’6” 170, so it’ll be interesting how he’s used this year. Here’s his highlight reel.

As you can see, Millede is playing QB in these plays. He’s not going to play QB in college, but he’s dynamic with the ball. If Virginia can get the ball into his hands in space, he’s gone.

It’s a little bit disappointing that Kier and Atkins only have two years remaining. Neither of them has contributed much in two years, getting almost all of their time on special teams. Some of that is because of Ellis’ performance and durability. Was the special teams performance those two provided enough of a justification for playing them both as true freshmen? Hopefully that doesn’t happen again with Hollins and Milledge.

Hollins’ athleticism numbers are outstanding. But (like most freshmen) he could probably use a year in a college strength program to develop his body. If he’s not ready to supplant Kier (or Taulapapa or Atkins) on the depth chart, he should redshirt. That would give Virginia another 4 years of this beastly RB. Similarly, if Milledge isn’t ready to contribute much, he should also redshirt. However, both are probably too talented to keep off the field.